how to complain

Did you snigger at the farmer who, after reaching an impasse in a bitter dispute with NatWest bank, emptied his muckspreader on them? Well, control yourself. This excitable vigilante (right) is pounds 2,000 poorer. The bank, being unable to see the funny side of their front door, sued him to recover the cost of removing his unauthorised, ahem, deposit.

But how do you make the mighty treat you better? Three case studies might shed some light:

A month ago, I returned from holiday and sent off my films to become "Kodak Moments". Imagine my chagrin when some negatives returned sliced diagonally and Sellotaped, along with the standard letter and measly compensation of one free roll and a voucher for repeat treatment.

I was furious, but did I fire up the muckspreader? No, dear reader. I telephoned Kodak to ask what their claims procedure was. Kodak asked me to mail back my snaps with a letter. I resisted until Kodak agreed to pay for registered mail.

I wrote movingly about losing my pictures of places and people I might "never see again" and how pounds 250 might just help. I requested a swift reply to avoid legal advice. Finally, I mentioned my confidence in Kodak's commitment to excellence. Good negotiators offer face-savers.

And the combination of emotional appeal, veiled threat and face-saver worked.

Kodak, being kind at heart, responded handsomely with six Gold films, six processing vouchers and a pounds 60 cheque.

Doesn't excite you? Well, here is a bigger one. Eleven months after I bought a laptop computer, after having minor faults repaired under warranty, I worried what would happen when that warranty expired. Shouldn't a pounds 1,500 purchase provide two year's stress-free computing?

I sent a fax to the offending manufacturer and alleged shoddy workmanship. I demanded a new machine and warranty. "Definitely not," they said. But, three weeks of non-stop calls and faxes later, they threw in the towel. A new updated model and warranty arrived by courier. Sadly, I cannot mention the manufacturer's name. These deals include secrecy clauses.

But can you really punish a big company? Just ask Jeremy Dorosin, who humiliated the largest US coffee chain, Starbucks. His refusal to accept bad service strikes fear into those who would take our money and treat us like nobodies.

Jeremy bought a $300 Espresso machine, asked for the free coffee offered, but was told: "You get nothing." He then discovered the machine was incomplete and rusty. Starbucks denied responsibility. Many might give in and get depressed, but Jeremy got even. He spent his life savings on five ads in the Wall Street Journal offering a freephone number for other complaints. Thousands responded.

As a result, Jeremy's story appeared in 38 newspapers, on national TV shows, and he is negotiating book and movie rights. Horrified, but way late, Starbucks reversed, apologised and offered a new machine. Jeremy now wanted a $2m, two-page public apology in the Wall Street Journal, then a $5m centre for runaways in San Francisco. US customer service expert, Ron Zemke advised Starbucks: "Start digging the foundations." Jeremy had made the mighty weep.

And there you have it: artful complaining generates cash, goods - or you can exact a fearsome revenge. So, although the British are reluctant to make a scene, if you want to have a go, here are a few tips:

1. Never insult or threaten illegal acts. They harden opposition.

2. Pick a big target. If you need PR, the media love David and Goliath dust-ups.

3. Deal with a supervisor direct; fax letters. It is harder to deny having received faxes.

4. Know your rights, but ask for more. Expect to haggle.

5. Imply nasty measures: bad PR, plus legal action. But these are the last resort, costing time and money.

6. Be firm, but reasonable, and do not make things up. Ranting in the street may brand you a nut or prompt a libel action.

Oh, and one last thing... I offer no guarantee. But, of course, this does not affect your statutory rights. Have a nice day.

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